Warriors season preview: The four key questions

After a stretch where the Warriors made five straight NBA Finals and won three rings, the team has had a rough two years. Can the Warriors get back into title contention? Or will they remain on the outside looking in? It could all depend on these four key questions facing the Warriors as they head into the 2021-22 season.

When will Klay Thompson return, and will he be the same?

There are many reasons why the Warriors had the rest of the league on its back foot from 2014 to the 2019 Finals, but it all comes back to the Splash Brothers. The three-point shot has never been more valuable, and the Warriors were built around a backcourt featuring two of the best shooters in the history of basketball.

Not coincidentally, the Warriors have yet to win a postseason game since Thompson tore his ACL in Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals, which caused him to miss the entire 2019-20 season. Things went from bad to worse when Thompson tore his Achilles in a pickup game and consequently missed the entire 2020-21 season. The last time he played an official game for the Warriors, COVID-19 was just a random collection of letters.

Thompson is expected to return this season, and perhaps within this calendar year, but the real question is if he’ll be able to return to his championship form when he does return. Thompson is much more than just a shooter, especially in the Warriors’ system. His combination of length and quickness is a massive boon to the team’s switch-heavy defense, and allows them to keep Steph Curry from having to defend the best scoring guards in the league. Having Thompson and Curry on the floor allows Steve Kerr to play the modified triangle/motion offense, which is much harder to find an answer for than the pick-and-roll attack that has become the staple of nearly every offense in the league. To put it simply, Thompson is the element that turns the Warriors from an effective team with good shooters into a problem almost no NBA team has solved.

An Achilles tear used to be akin to a death sentence for NBA players, but if you watched Kevin Durant last year, you know that’s no longer the case, especially for a player who can shoot like Thompson. Make no mistake: It’s entirely possible that Thompson can be his old self by the time the Warriors reach the stretch run, and it could make the difference between a short season and a championship run.

What about the kids?

Literally hours before Thompson’s Achilles injury was revealed on draft day, it seemed like the Warriors were receiving the ultimate in luxury. A team that had been able to have tremendous success without needing a traditional big man was about to get the best big man in the draft, Memphis’ James Wiseman, a true 7-footer who is athletic as the day is long, could protect the rim and rebound, didn’t need plays called for him, and had even shown flashes of a perimeter game during his truncated amateur career.

Things didn’t quite go according to plan, and Wiseman’s rookie season was something of a disappointment. Due to injuries and a bout with COVID-19, he only appeared in 39 games last season, and often looked out of place when he did play; the Warriors were a full 14.6 points per 100 possessions worse when Wiseman was on the floor.

Jonathan Kuminga is another potential luxury for the Warriors, who can develop the 6-foot, 7-inch swingman dripping with tools who eschewed college to play for the G-League’s Ignite last season at whatever pace they desire. They could “redshirt” him for a year, using him mostly in garbage time or the G-League; let him try and stretch his wings while Thompson gets ready for his return; or do just about whatever they want. If Wiseman and Kuminga can live up to their collective potential, the entire next chapter of Warriors basketball could change.

Can Draymond find his shot again?

If you don’t know how important Draymond Green has been to the Warriors, you haven’t been paying attention. His ability to guard every position on the floor, including centers, is what made the Warriors’ fabled “death lineup” able to function as a defensive unit, and his basketball IQ and ability to make passes from the high post and on his signature short-roll is what allows the Warriors to employ the kind of whirring, motion-based offense mentioned above.

Curry and Thompson are at their best when they’re free to sprint around the court and dart around, behind and over screens without the burden of the ball in their hands, and the reason they’re able to do so is because the Warriors’ best passer also happens to be their center.

When Green shot 38.8% from beyond the arc during the Warriors’ 73-win 2015-16 campaign, he was incredibly effective — the Warriors were 26.3 points better per 100 possessions with Green on the floor. For the sake of comparison, the Warriors were “only” 22.6 points per 100 possessions with Curry on the floor that year, and he was named the league’s first-ever unanimous MVP. Since that year, Green has still been valuable, but his 3-point percentage has been at 30% or below. If Green can go back to being the stretch forward he was during the Warriors’ record-breaking season, watch out.

Will the Warriors make a move?

Curry is 33. Thompson is 31. Green is 31. The Warriors’ championship window with their current “Big Three” may be closing.

The Warriors have their pick in the upcoming draft, the aforementioned Wiseman and Kuminga, and the $29.5 million expiring salary of the still-effective Andrew Wiggins. Don’t count out the possibility of the Warriors’ front office taking the assets they have and going all-in on a chance to win at least one more championship behind the Splash Brothers. After all, these are the folks that went and got Durant after winning 73 games and coming a minute short of winning the NBA Finals.

A trade of Kuminga, Wiseman and Wiggins (or Draymond, if they believe Ben Simmons could fill the point forward role) for Simmons, Curry and underrated defensive ace Matisse Thybulle would work under the salary cap, as would a Kuminga-Wiseman-Wiggins for Bradley Beal (along with Thomas Bryant’s expiring contract) deal if the Warriors are comfortable going into the postseason with Thompson as a full-time small forward.

John Krolik is a freelance contributor to The Examiner.

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